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Eating and Animating: Balancing the Basics for U.K. Independents

Marie Beardmore details ways for U.K. animators, seeking to make their own works, can obtain funding in order to eat and animate!

How do they eat? We all know that animation festivals are full of talent scouts from major studios looking for the latest crop of graduates to work on their productions, but what if independence is your thing? What if you want to make your own personal films? In this scenario, put simply, how do you eat? How do you sustain yourself job to job?

To the independent film maker, the outside world can be a hostile place. A side-effect of the current boom in the genre is that more animators are being churned out, which means that filmmakers aren't just competing against their peers but against other animators, a sort of stockpile of talent competing for the same jobs, and increasingly doing it at an international level. The competition is rife and not only for work. Schemes such as MOMI and Animate offer animators an opportunity to make personal films and get paid for doing so. The MOMI scheme, an initiative between Channel 4 and the Museum of the Moving Image (MOMI)which is now in its eighth year, is in particular a lifeline to new graduates as it offers enough money to live on. The Animate award only offers commissions to a maximum of U.K. £25,000, which isn't a lot to make a film and keep body and soul together.

Kayla Parker's Cage of Flame. © Kayla Parker

MOMI's Lucky Few

There's another difficulty with MOMI which has nothing to do with the selection procedure. Animators selected have to work on display in a glass booth measuring just 3m x 3m and colloquially known as the `fish tank.' If such conditions have adversely affected the work of candidates, it hasn't affected the number of entrants. This year there were 80 applicants, and with only four awards a year that means a lot of disappointed people. As you'd expect, most of the MOMI people are apprehensive of being on display, even if only at the start. However once acclimatized, they soon settle down, or so I'm told, and even start to have some fun with the audience. For instance Sam Fell, a model animator, sat stock still until he'd garnered quite a crowd and only then would start to become animated himself.

The latest inmate is Lizzie Oxby, who's currently working on her film Villa 21, a model animation about a man that's been pushed into a madness which centers around his growing paranoia of the telephone. Previous to MOMI, which graduates have up to five years to take up, Oxby has found a living through a variety of means, including producing and directing an MTV Europe station ident called Flick Flack and as a model maker for another MTV logo for Star TV called Star. Oxby is also a keen proponent of new media and has provided the animation for various CD-ROMs including animating and designing a skeleton puppet for Real World's CD Rom Griffin and Sabine and creating a photomontage for a CD Cover called Schitzoid for Readymade Media. Her particular style of animation has also attracted the attention of the music industry: EMI commissioned her to make a promo for an artist called Adam F after seeing her degree show, a stop frame and mixed media work which won rave reviews. Oxby has also been a regular on the festival circuit with her short film The Lacemaker, which was sponsored by BBC Bristol and won a gold medal at the Bilbao Short Film Festival. Her experience in the glass booth, she says, has so far been "not as bad as I imagined it to be," although size wise, the room is known to be tough on model animators. Despite the drawbacks - the security camera and the vague impression that you're an exhibit in a zoo--MOMI retains its popularity and is seen as more than a first foot on the ladder. Previous MOMI participants have included Ruth Lingford with Death of the Maiden and Ian Clarke with Deviant, both of whom have captured international attention.

But you can only do MOMI once and even though so far Clare Kitson, commissioning editor for Channel 4, has commissioned all the films, she's not obliged to do so. Moreover, you can't live forever on one film so where do you turn next? Kayla Parker has been an independent filmmaker on and off for ten years, having started off on an enterprise allowance scheme in 1988. It was, she says, one of "the odd good things that the Tory government bought in." Parker is one of the few filmmakers based outside London and tends to jump from commission to commission juxtaposing her commercial work with her own films. She's just completed the titles for a quirky history series from Channel 4, which she'll follow with another personal film. A film maker who lives outside of the M25, Parker is a fan of the Animate scheme which she says not only champions regional animators as well those based in London, but also manages to encourage diversity as well.

Image from a film by Hotessa Lawrence. © Hotessa Lawrence.

Animate Via Commission

The Animate scheme, a collaboration between the Arts Council's Visual Arts Department and Channel 4, offers commissions up to £25,000 for innovative animation. It's been a godsend to the independent sector and has funded 41 projects, including Sarah Cox's 3 Ways to Go, which won "Best Film Under Ten Minutes" at this year's British Animation Awards, and Feeling My Way, by Jonathan Hodgson, which won "Most Creative Use of New Technologies." Parker's own Animate film is Cage of Flame, a film produced on a shoestring budget which used pixillation and stop motion and is based upon dreams during menstruation. She has also made another film called Sunset Strip. Despite her success and somewhat fame, Parker admits that it is "economically difficult to survive," and is becoming more so because there are less initiatives to help animators and, as aforementioned, an ever-growing supply of talent. You'd think the animation boom would in itself offer some checks and balances but as Parker explains, that's not entirely the case. "It's harder to earn a living now than ten years ago, as 1988 was the end of the public access workshops. They've virtually all gone now." Parker also finds it tougher being in the regions but says there are compensations, namely "being by the sea." She'd like to see the current system diversified to give more sources of funding. For now until the millennium however, Parker doesn't have to worry about the next commission. She's taking a breather from animation for her next project which is to create a living community archive for the people of Plymouth. Funded by the Single Regeneration Budget, in partnership with South West Arts and Plymouth Council, "It's a nice project," says Parker, which will be adopted by locals in two years time. Building Your Own Way An independent filmmaker who now has a full-length animated feature to his name is Tony Johnson, a Cardiff based animator whose film Fallen Angels, an animated road movie, has received critical acclaim. Unlike many, Johnson has never made a film on either the Animate or the MOMI scheme but has funded himself through a variety of media jobs, including graphics and directing a number of documentaries. In making Fallen Angels Johnson showed amazing resourcefulness and tenacity. He set up his own studio and trained his own animators. He's currently working on his next film, entitled Island of the Dead which already has most of its funding in place. Hopefully this will ensure that Johnson is able to focus on making a spellbinding animated film.

Reece Millidge's Chemical Reaction. © Reece Millidge.

The MOMI scheme is for new graduates but many find applying the same year they've graduated too intense. The recent crop of RCA graduates are finding various ways to earn a crust. Hotessa Lawrence has just completed her two year post-grad in animation and is currently living at home so she "doesn't have to worry about the rent." She has also been fortunate in finding commercial work as a hand artist on live-action ads for Two Rivers, a production company, but has also "done some really horrible jobs" to make ends meet. At the moment she's one of many pitching for the title sequence of the Channel 4 show Dope Sheet but is optimistic about the future. "I've only been out of college a few months and I haven't even taken my show reel around. Although I have an agent I still need to get my reel to them." Her film, At the Drop of a Hat, got a fair bit of feedback, she says. "Hibbert Ralph got in touch - they're just waiting for work to come in that they think I'm suitable for." She isn't applying for MOMI yet though, as she thinks it is too soon.

Another of this year's RCA graduates is Reece Millidge and like many of his peers, he's set on making it as an independent. A graduate of Bournmouth where he did a degree, he's found an excellent support network among his MA colleagues at the Royal College. He's another filmmaker who's drawn to mixed media and has found expression in his film Chemical Reaction. However, in the day to day business of surviving, he's made ends meet by working as an assistant animator for several companies, including Bermuda Shorts and Susan Young in London. Next year, though, MOMI or Animate beckon.

Cartoon's Draw

Finally, you can't talk about animation in this context without mentioning Cartoon, part of Media II, and the only dedicated body that survived the demise of Media I intact. Every year, Cartoon helps the animation industry tick over by giving development aid to projects that are pitched at its annual Cartoon Forum. This year's event, which is to be held on the Greek island of Syros, will include 441 hours of proposed programming, so there should be something for everyone. All of the main European countries will attend with proposals, however it's France and the UK that will bring the most projects--France has 20 and the UK, 16. Germany is bringing seven projects, Belgium six and Greece and Spain five each. Although producers can get funding from Cartoon, there are caveats. For instance, any money loaned has to be paid back even if the project is never made, which keeps many hard-up producers from even applying for funding. Marie Beardmore is a London-based freelance journalist who specializes in writing about the international animation industry. She is also developing her own animation projects which include a children's series for 4-9 year olds and an animated sitcom.

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